The beautiful island nation of Cyprus has been ruled by many successive empires over the millennia due to its strategic location between Europe and the Levant – Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, European Crusaders, Lusignans, Venetians, Genoans, Ottomans and finally the British all had their turn. Cyprus travel is very rewarding but what books about Cyprus should you read before you go or pack in your suitcase?
From Kolossi Castle near Limassol on the south coast, whose impressive Crusader walls saw the wedding feast of Richard the Lionheart and Berengaria of Navarre, to the wild-flower-drowned ruins of ancient Salamis on the west coast, Cyprus travel is certainly rich in historical interest.
The literary-minded among us may like to sleep in the at the Forest Park Hotel in Pano Platres, where Daphne du Maurier penned her novel Rebecca, staying here for many months among the pine-scented mountains of Cyprus.
Or perhaps you are looking for books set in Cyprus that take your experience beyond that of a travel guide? Cyprus comes alive in these novels set in Cyprus and travelogues that get to the heart of the country. What books would I recommend to read for Cyprus travel? It seems that nothing worth reading about Cyprus can not be dominated by the tragic conflicts that have torn the country apart in the later half of the 20th century.
Travelogue and memoir
Journey into Cyprus by Colin Thubron
Like many of history’s great travel writers, Thubron has always been up for a good long walk. 600 miles of Cyprus travel from top to tail and a lot of things in between in the Spring of 1972. At times he doubts the wisdom of avoiding taxis and hotels, yet the young traveller perseveres. Beyond his undoubted physical courage and resilience, this travelogue is also richly informed by the author’s knowledge, research and language skills. It’s key to the success of the travel and writing of one of the greatest travel writers of all time. His observations on the build up of tension between the Greek and Turkish populations are fair-minded.
Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell
In 1953 Lawrence Durrell was looking for an affordable but congenial Mediterranean lifestyle to write a new novel and so he bought and renovated a house in the village of Bellapais (now part of Northern Cyprus). Durrell’s oeuvre has perhaps not stood the test of time and at times I found him a product of his time and culture. But there is some very erudite and often amusing writing here that covers a significant time in the island’s history. Like Thubron, he was in Cyprus as tensions boiled to breaking point (ultimately he had to flee the island in 1956). Also like Thubron he spoke Greek. His view of both the British Government and the Greek Cypriot militants is a dim one but this is not meant to be a political book.
Literary and historical fiction
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
This novel is a song to a “lonely, beautiful island at the far end of the Mediterranean” using wonderful imagery to evoke sights, smells and other sensations of Cyprus travel. Shafak is a compulsive storyteller and chock full of compassion. I particularly love the way she expands moments into significance with details and descriptions. It’s like she makes you stop and savour things. She picks up the idea of migrating birds taking no note of artificial human boundaries and hatreds, going a step further with her nature writing by making a fig tree one of the main characters. The tree is witness to a century of joy and conflict, with a different perspective to we humans. Shafak has such a clear-eyed view of the world and effectively utilises fiction to tell a tragically difficult story without taking sides.
The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop
This Victoria Hislop book about Cyprus tells the story of 1972 through fiction with a focus on the east coast region of Famagusta. Here the glamorous resort town of Varosha was developed along the coast beside the medieval old town. For a time a Turkish and a Greek family live side by side. The coup and following tragic conflict put a quick end to any belief that co-existence was possible. Hislop tries hard to present this important piece of history. Nowadays you can only view sealed off Varosha from a distance, where forlorn skeleton hotels line the beach.
A Watermelon, a Fish and a Bible by Christy Lefteri
The author of The Beekeeper of Aleppo takes on the Cyprus conflict with a focus on identity, loss and the meaning of family. The painful events that unroll are handled with delicate storytelling that tugs on the heartstrings. The novel is set in and around the north coast town of Kyrenia, said to be the most beautiful in Cyprus, and the gorgeous setting only makes the division more tragic.
Lighter fare, romance and mystery
Death in Cyprus by M.M. Kaye
Kaye’s mid-century series of murder mysteries are full of old-fashioned suspense and romance in exotic locations. Emphasis on the old-fashioned but also on the delightful setting and fun dialogue. Twenty-year-old Amanda Derrington is indulging in Cyprus travel from a cruise ship but a suspicious death changes everything… For this book about Cyprus Kaye drew on her own experiences during the period of British-rule, including the house where she stayed, to create an immersive read.
The Olive Tree by Lucinda Riley
Here’s a lighthearted yet engrossing family saga with plenty of heartbreak but also happiness. Helena returns to Cyprus 24 years after an idyllic holiday during which she fell in love for the first time. Inheriting her godfather’s dilapidated house full of secrets and bumping into her childhood sweetheart sets a chain of events in motion that make this book set in Cyprus a very enjoyable read.
Tell me, have you any other recommendations for books about Cyprus?
Everything I found to read was concerned with the 20th century history of the island but I would love to read something previous centuries and millennia, particularly about the historic city of Famagusta. Let me know if you find anything good!